Two alumni to receive honorary degrees

May 6, 2008 By Gwen Evans

Two University of Wisconsin–Madison alumni have been selected to receive honorary degrees from their alma mater. John W. Rowe, a leader in the energy industry, will be awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Humane Letters and Science; John E. Ahern, who leads a Wisconsin contracting company, will receive the honorary degree Doctor of Science.

The university will bestow the honorary degrees during its Ph.D. and professional degrees ceremony on Friday, May 16, which begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Kohl Center. That ceremony is the first of five UW–Madison spring commencement ceremonies scheduled that weekend.

The process for awarding honorary degrees begins with nominations from UW–Madison academic departments to the institution’s 28-member Committee on Honorary Degrees. Nominees who receive the endorsement of that committee are then recommended to the UW–Madison chancellor, UW System Board of Regents and the UW–Madison Faculty Senate for approval. An honorary degree is awarded in recognition of extraordinary accomplishment and achievement.

Rowe has built some of the most successful utilities companies in the United States and has done so with responsibility to his employees and to society. His leadership in the civic sphere has earned him the respect and appreciation of many. He played an instrumental role in shaping the 2005 federal energy bill, which seeks to diminish American dependency on oil by fostering the development of other energy sources.

He has served society in numerous ways, including his creation and support of the Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy, the first Chicago public school to place special emphasis on providing math and science education to a diverse student population. Rowe’s personal investment and daily engagement with the academy further illustrates his deep commitment to improving society and especially his commitment to underserved populations.

In addition, he has nurtured a lifelong passion for history. An avid reader, he continues to expand his impressive knowledge of history and discusses it and its application to modern society in all settings. He and his wife endowed a UW–Madison professorship in Byzantine history, a position that honors the institution’s century-long leadership in scholarship and teaching about the political entity that dominated the eastern Mediterranean sphere for nearly a millennium until its overthrow by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Ahern has lived a life committed to people. He built a nationally acclaimed, multimillion-dollar company in mechanical and fire protection contracting and used it as a vehicle for developing people’s talents. His university education instilled in him the value of empowering all people through education by nurturing their creativity and by providing them abundant opportunities to acquire, apply and share knowledge. Ahern has tirelessly contributed to philanthropy and other civic activities across the state of Wisconsin.

At the national level, Ahern has worked to professionalize his industry through training and continuing education for everyone from apprentices and project managers to CEOs. He used his influence to promote a national fund that invests in the industry to support ongoing training, cross-training, safety initiatives and publicity for career opportunities for plumbers, pipe fitters and other union workers. He supports research to improve the methods, processes and technologies of his industry. He has also developed a national program for students across the United States to explore careers in mechanical engineering.